/ 24 June 2011

Shooting crime: Cape Town’s other side

There was something incongruous about the clean washing strung above grimy concrete slabs that connected a dilapidated block of flats. Most of it was children’s clothes — party dresses, snowy T-shirts, ankle socks, little panties and colourful trousers. As neatly dressed children gathered around me, I realised that what hung on the sagging lines was more than newly washed clothes.

In Cape Town’s drug-sodden badlands, where the kill rate is higher than in Afghanistan or Iraq, rape is so common it is almost normal. Sex and assault is Saturday entertainment, and keeping children clean is an investment in an almost unimaginable — and near impossible — better life. It is the desperate dreams of mothers trapped in one of the most dangerous places on earth.

I was in Hanover Park, a single-race apartheid hangover on the Cape Flats, to talk to the Ghetto Kids’ leader, who would hopefully give me some protection during my mission to photograph crime. He said he formed the gang to protect his friends against other gangs. He did not shoot anyone, did not rob, only occasionally assaulted someone and did not use hard drugs. All gangsters talk shit. But he had nice eyes.

After a while a woman butted into our conversation and said I should talk to the merchant upstairs. So I followed her into a dirty flat where young men were doing things with blades, small chopping boards and white powder. The merchant said he specialised in heroin. “I’m a sort of therapist to these youngsters,” he said. “I only take the stuff to better understand their lives. I help them not to freak out, to stay focused.”

Pagad, a largely Muslim vigilante organisation, hunt for drug merchants. They caught and beat a man they suspected of being a dealer.

Drug dealers also talk shit, but he, too, had nice eyes — faraway and dreamy, though they had ­probably witnessed the fires of hell when supplies ran out. A photograph? “No problem,” he said, “the cops are fucking useless and they like money.”

Listening to him, I felt a long way from where I had begun the project of photographing the effects of crime. Back then, in the leafy suburbs of wealthy homeowners with high walls, electric fences and Rottweilers, my notion of crime was “law-breaking”.

But that definition was falling apart. A textbook on criminal law yielded a surprisingly simple answer: a crime was what society defined it to be. In South Africa’s still deeply economically divided society, I was discovering that one man’s crime was another’s bread and butter. The trouble was that children were getting caught in the crossfire.

Watching the neighbourhood
Wayne Weimann is part of an organisation the local police must envy. BKM Watch, a neighbourhood security company, has a radio control room in Bergvliet, an upper-class and largely white suburb. When they put out a call the police come promptly. I went patrolling with a BKM team, the members of which were kitted out with reflective vests, strong torches and radios; some wore body armour. We found an abandoned dog.

Pagad, caught and beat a man they suspected of being a dealer.

Over in Athlone, a middle-class and largely coloured suburb, I met a different kind of neighbourhood watch. Pagad (People against Gangsterism and Drugs) is a largely Muslim vigilante organisation that has a bad reputation with the authorities. Some of its members have spent time in jail for assault and murder.

We met at a mosque, then went hunting for drug merchants. One man was carrying a hammer. I was glad I was not their quarry. They banged on a door and barged into a house, demanding the whereabouts of a man they suspected of dealing drugs. They found him cowering on the roof and dragged him into a corner, screaming at him and slapping him around. He begged for mercy and said he only used dagga.

“You lie, you fucking bastard,” the pack leader shouted. “You sell tik to our children. You’re scum.”

I was asked to leave and as I stepped on to the veranda a blood-chilling scream tore the night. It sounded like death but minutes later the crowd emerged, pushing the dealer ahead of them. In the street, with the neighbours watching, he stood with his hands together, seemingly in prayer, and renounced drug dealing, his former life and anything else they wanted him to give up. The terror in his eyes was heart-wrenching.

“The police are doing nothing,” one of the leaders, Abdus Salaam Ebrahim, told me. “They don’t care about coloured people, so we have to do this to protect our children. What would you do if a drug dealer sold tik to your child?’

After the killing of two young men, the community of Lavender Hill met to protest, demand army intervention and rebuke the police.

Saturday morning fever
The next day was Saturday. I realised too late that this was not a good time to be in Hanover Park, a dumping ground for families evicted from District Six in the 1970s. People were at home in the dreary flats or out on the sandy wasteland surrounding them. Some were drunk, or high on something, or just hanging around, waiting for something to happen. I talked to an Americans gang leader, who no longer did anything definable as crime, naturally.

A decidedly drunk woman started demanding my attention. She shouted at me when I ignored her. Another woman, presumably also high on something and looking terribly life-wrecked, began yelling at the first woman and soon they were laying into each other. That attracted a crowd who began shouting and trying to separate the brawlers while children gathered to watch the ­circus. The razor-blade volatility of the place was terrifying; everybody was on edge. It seemed a good time to leave.

From good time to jail time
Occasionally the fruits of crime turn rotten. The law dips its arm into the forgotten suburbs and hauls out a lawbreaker, sends him to the clink for, sometimes, years awaiting trial and then to prison. The correctional services department was happy to show me around Goodwood Prison, guided by its thoughtful and intelligent governor, Takalani Mashamba. If you have to go to prison in South Africa, this is where you want to be. The young men I talked to all claimed minor offences or wrongful arrest, as prisoners do, except one member of the 26 gang who said he shot his first person when he was 16.

I was reviewing my negative mind-set about South African prisons when a friend, who had just begun a programme in nearby Pollsmoor Prison, sent me an email: “I am shocked by the place. If animals were kept in the conditions the guys in Pollsmoor are kept and a journalist put the pictures in the newspaper, animal rights activists would be in uproar.”

Every day is washing day: In Hanover Park the clean clothes of children contrast sharply with the surrounding squalor.

The children are not alright
A week earlier, a child and a young man had been shot dead during a gang fight in Lavender Hill, another suburb of rundown flats and flapping washing. A protest meeting was organised by the New World Foundation and children stood around holding signs reading “Stop the violence”, “Save our children” and “End police corruption”.

A politician got the crowd going and then handed over the microphone to the police. The crowd shouted them down and demanded the army be called in. Then they sat down and Ebrahim took over. As the meeting ended the crowd chanted: “We want Pagad.”

Asha Davids was not sure about Pagad. “They’re Muslim and we aren’t,” she said when I met her at her small house in Lavender Hill. “We need more than that. We want decent houses, better schools, better streetlights, no more guns, the drug trade to be stopped, the police to be proper police.

In Hanover Park children are exposed to violence from a young age.

“But it’s not going to happen — just look around here. When it was apartheid the coloured people weren’t white enough. Now we aren’t black enough. We’re a thrown-away people.”
She turned to me and demanded: “What can we do? You tell me. What can we do?”

I looked at the children standing around — beautiful children with bright, intelligent eyes dressed in clean clothes in all this mess. It was heartbreaking. “I don’t know,” I said, and found that tears were rolling down my cheeks.

As I drove out of Lavender Hill, it suddenly hit me what constitutes the most evil crime of them all. It is the wrong we do our children. The ones who live in fear behind electric fences. The ones who are sold drugs, who get raped, many even before puberty. The ones who watch their parents falling apart trying to keep things together. The worst crime is the murder of a child’s dream.

Photos: Don Pinnock